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An Open Letter to Foundations from a Millennial Leader

This post is a collaboration between EPIP member Lora Smith, Communications Officer at Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in Winston-Salem, NC, and one of MRBF’s grantees, Charmel Gauden, an attorney and the former Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center (GCFHC).  We asked them to share their thoughts on leadership in the 21st century.

IMG_0740In 2011 the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation hosted a trans-generational convening on the topic of Equity and Opportunity in the American South. We wanted to understand the needs of emerging nonprofit leaders in the South and what they saw on the horizon of their work. The conversation also included respected elders in the sector who helped ground the conversation in historical context and offered mentorship. We listened to the rich conversation and came away with beginning strategies to better support nextGen Southern leadership that we believe will help strengthen nonprofit infrastructure in the region as a whole. Hearing directly from young leaders within our grantee partner organizations was integrally important for our institutional learning and practice. Charmel Gauden was one of the participants. She shares what she hopes foundations learn about the needs of millennial leaders here.

— Lora Smith, Communications Officer, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation

An Open Letter to Foundations from a Millennial Leader

Dear Foundations,

Every generation is tagged with labels and these days my millennial peers and I are suffering from a media-induced identity crisis. According to one report we’re selfie-taking underachievers, while another paints us as selfless philanthropists motivated by the common good. More importantly, leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector are trying to figure out how best to understand, engage and support my generation as we take on the next decades of work and move into executive leadership roles.

As a millennial and an emerging nonprofit leader working in the South, I am witnessing my generation define itself through new ways of working and new leadership styles that challenge traditional definitions of organizing, community and success.

We are living in a moment of opportunity for philanthropic leaders, donors and nonprofit executives to step forward and support a generation of leaders during a crucial stage in our development. An opportunity to influence and strengthen the leadership skills of millennials early in their careers like this won’t exist again.

Here are a few things I want to share about emerging nonprofit leaders and what we need:

el20• Emerging leaders aren’t ‘know-it-alls’. The assumption that because knowledge is so readily available millennial leaders can Google search to solve problems is false. We don’t live online. Instead, we need in-person relationship building as much as other generations. The work, the day-in day-out in the trenches work, is not being well chronicled. Therefore, we rely on the stories of older leaders to provide us with crucial context and lessons.

Providing emerging leaders with the resources to build in-person relationships and networks is invaluable. Connecting emerging and elder leaders through intentional intergenerational networks and gatherings contributes immensely to our development and creates continuity among organizations and movements.

• Emerging leaders live outside the box. Nonprofit work has become more issue area oriented over the last twenty years. This limits cross-sector communication and learning opportunities. Emerging leaders are not afraid to have more than one area of competency or more than one approach to solving a problem. We welcome blended models, interconnected strategies and cross freely between public, private and nonprofit sectors. This flexibility in thinking is viewed by some as an inability to focus or dig deep on an issue.  However, removing artificial barriers around approaches and issues creates connected problem solving.

We need partnerships with foundations who identify and understand these new ways of working. 

• Emerging leaders believe the battle can be won… and we have the data to prove it.  This is not youthful enthusiasm. Instead, we believe in a data-driven movement. Through asking the right questions, tracking the right data and making informed decisions we are creating more effective solutions.

Funding for new technology and communications infrastructure paired with skills trainings for nonprofit staff can help escalate our success in achieving outcomes that matter to community. 

Thoughtful and proactive resources like EPIP’s Generating Change program already exist to help grantmakers think through strategies for supporting leadership transitions and emerging talent. Likewise, many foundations including the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation are assessing and sharing the needs and desires of young leader in their grantee organizations to better understand existing challenges and help inform strategies.

Understanding the challenges and needs faced by millennial nonprofit leaders requires a commitment to conversation with us as opposed to about us. Engaging in conversations with emerging leaders can be one of the most effective things a foundation, nonprofit leader, donor or supervisor can do to encourage effective new forms of leadership. Conversations can happen in person or virtually, but creating the space for those conversations, supports innovation, implementation and ultimately a more sustainable and effective movement for change.

Despite the way we are sometimes portrayed, I know that my generation is committed for the long-haul and will reinvent the way change happens through new and innovative approaches to our work. I encourage you to become involved with emerging leadership programs in your funding region with a sense of urgency. We need your support to realize our fullest potential.

Charmel Gaulden
New Orleans, LA

charmel_gaulden_bio_pictureA native of Savannah, Georgia, Charmel Gaulden is an attorney and the former Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center (GCFHC). During her tenure at GCFHC she raised over $1 million in funding and helped Mississippians recover over $100,000 as a result of leading 50 fair housing investigations. A firm believer in education, she has designed outreach campaigns resulting in thousands of Mississippians learning their fair housing rights. As a result of her leadership, GCFHC served as a plaintiff in the lawsuit to ensure equal recovery from Hurricane Katrina for Mississippians which resulted in $132.8 million being provided for Mississippi housing recovery. A 2011 New Organizing Institute New Media Fellow, Ms. Gaulden co-edits The Oyster Knife , a blog dedicated to lifting up the voices of women working for social justice on the Gulf Coast.  

Equity and Opportunity in the American South from Third Space Studio on Vimeo.